Are lobbyists unethical? Email 100 words or less to firstname.lastname@example.org. The best response will be posted.
FOR MOST AMERICANS, the answer to the above question is too securely in the affirmative to merit a response. It can best be classified as a rhetorical substitute for “yes,” much like “is the sky blue?” E.g.: “Is Washington broken?” “Um, are lobbyists unethical?”
It may be the case that many lobbyists are unethical, but to no greater extent than many school teachers or doctors are. These last are part of noble professions that contain some ignoble people. If lobbyists were incorrigibly unethical, there would have to be something incorrigibly unethical about lobbying.
But if the object of the question is the business of lobbying, and not the lobbyists themselves (if it is best read “is lobbying unethical?”), then all logic errs on the side of the negative. The activity of lobbying is ethically neutral: it can go in the direction of big tobacco or bone cancer research. Assessed through the lens of the Constitution, lobbying attains a positive ethical charge. The common thread that unites all lobbyists is their exercise of the freedom of speech and to petition, both couched in the First Amendment.
The assumption (dare I say conviction) that lobbyists are unethical is also fueled by a very unhistorical sentiment: nostalgia (or as the late sociologist Robert Nisbet called it, “the rust of memory.”) In the words of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig:
The ordinary lobbyist today is a Boy Scout compared with the criminal of the nineteenth century. The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway. (Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It)
To Lessig, lobbyists are not only not unethical, they’re admirable. Paradoxically, they’re the model of what most people think they corrupt.